Avowed atheist Arnold L. Via of Grottoes, Va., has lost his court battle to keep Virginia officials from revoking his license plate, ATH-EST, after an anonymous citizen complained that it was offensive.

Via, 60, a retired merchant seaman and an atheism activist, sued Virginia's Division of Motor Vehicles in June, arguing that the state's attempt to revoke the tags was a form of religious discrimination barred by the Virginia Constitution.

Augusta County Circuit Court Judge Thomas H. Wood had granted a temporary injunction until Via's case could be heard. But last week, Wood ruled that, where vanity license plates are concerned, the state's word is gospel.

The state cannot "prevent Mr. Via from holding and espousing any belief he may have concerning religion," the judge wrote. "Similarly, the Commonwealth could not require him to express a belief with which he disagreed. However, in this case, Mr. Via seeks to use state property to express his beliefs."

Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Donald E. Williams has the discretion to ban objectionable phrases or, in Via's case, revoke the tags after they are issued, Wood held.

Via's lawyer, H. Watkins Ellerson III of Orange, Va., said an appeal is likely. Ellerson argued in court that the commissioner's discretionary powers are too broad. The DMV has permitted such phrases as SAVED, PRAY and RISEN at the same time ATH-EST was disallowed, Ellerson noted.

"There is a strong proreligious bias at work here," he said. "It's just preposterous."